The First Death in the Community-1939

As a Muslim, I have been unable to tune out the ongoing conflict between the town of Dudley and the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester. I don’t live in the area, so I have no deep knowledge of the level of the dispute for all involved. My stake in the conflict, deepened by the involvement of the U.S. attorney’s office, is centered on a concern that this dispute sounds, on its surface, like a case of Islamophobia-or fear of my religion, Islam. Islamophobia is a rabid new form of racism that has gripped our country.

But after reading a summary of the complicated legal issues, I honestly could not conclude anything about the case, and I have resisted reducing it to a matter of Islamophobia. Instead, I thought that a little history about the Muslims in Massachusetts, who are now our neighbors, might possibly bring a new perspective to the case.

For my thesis, I authored a history of how the first mosque in all of New England was built. The Islamic Center of New England, built in 1964 in the City of Presidents, remained the only mosque for more than a decade. Both sides of my family were among the eight families who founded it. My grandfather, Hajj Mohamed Omar, was the first religious leader (imam).

Omar came to this country from Syria more than 100 years ago and settled in the Quincy neighborhood in the early 1930s. He acted as the community’s religious leader because he was one of the few literate immigrants and self-taught in the Qur’an. So, when the first member died, the family asked Omar to provide a proper burial. That was 1939. Joseph Hassan was accidentally run over by a trolley car during a blinding snowstorm in February on Washington Street. For Omar, time was of the essence, since Muslims are buried within 24 hours of death, similar to the Jewish tradition.

The Islamic burial begins by washing the body, a ritual performed by the same gender of family and friends, although volunteers can help. The body is then shrouded in white cloth and placed into a modest coffin (or no coffin at all). Today, the community gathers to pray (the junnaza), either in a funeral home or at the local mosque. The body is buried in an Islamic cemetery of which there are two that I know of, in Forest Hills and Canton. The imam recites a prayer at the graveside.

But in 1939, when there was no mosque, the responsibility fell on Mr. Omar. He made a personal friend of Dennis Sweeney, proprietor of Sweeney’s Funeral Home (Elm Street, Quincy), founded in 1917. As a neighborly gesture, Mr. Sweeney allowed Omar to use his facility for the washing.

The funny thing was, in Sweeney’s tradition he proceeded to provide the family an Irish/American wake. He dressed and primped the body, and followed the standard requirements of the time, such as an open casket, visited upstairs in the “funeral parlor” (Sweeney’s living room) by family and friends who paid their respects and offered prayers. For decades, Mr. Omar graciously accepted this tradition.

The relationship between Sweeney’s and the Muslim community has lasted for more than three generations. Sweeney’s provides a special room for washing, and a large salon where the funeral prayer can be performed by family and friends, after the visitation hours. Nowadays, since there are more Muslims familiar with Islamic traditions, the body is shrouded and the casket is closed.

There are many different types of Muslim families. Some are “unmosqued,” and might prefer the funeral home venue. But most Muslims believe that it is the mosque’s responsibility to see that the dead are buried properly and prayed over. And, like people of other faiths, most practicing Muslims think of being buried in a Muslim cemetery as sacred, given the opportunity.

That brings me back to Dudley, and all those involved in this sad conflict. I see now that my grandfather had carried a heavy burden, as the one person responsible for providing a proper Muslim burial in his community. But the best part of this history is that he found a Christian to help him in his hour of need. My hope is simply that this part of history will repeat itself.

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